Honesty and the Vietnam War

“By virtue of Vietnam, the U.S. held the line for 10 years and stopped the dominoes from falling.”

Americans used to laugh at Gen. William Westmoreland when he said something and they thought he was just a stubborn old man refusing to admit defeat.

Following his death last week, the newspapers didn’t laugh at his statements, but they did say he lost the war, or at best failed to lead the U.S. to victory. But if the U.S. effort in Vietnam was indeed a loss, it was the most victorious loss in history.

To measure our success, we have to know our goals. During the Vietnam era, surprisingly, U.S. leaders were at their most honest. The goal was just what Westmoreland, Kennedy and all the rest said: to stop the spread of communism because it was a disease, a cancer that the U.S. had to kill off wherever it turned up.

We can understand this as long as we know what a “communist” was. For half a century U.S. leaders taught Americans to think of the USSR and China, the totalitarian, wicked states that wanted to gobble up good Americans, when they heard it.

In practice, U.S. leaders used the term consistently, but in a different sense. It applied to anyone independent of U.S. power. These people were communists whether they considered themselves communists or not.

The Vietnamese forces, led by Ho Chi Minh, did consider themselves communists and eventually acted independent of U.S. demands, but before they violated those demands they sought U.S. help.

Vietnam had been under foreign domination for more than 1,000 years before the U.S. war, and the Vietnamese fought to free themselves from the Chinese, Japanese, French and Americans at different times throughout the 20th century.

As early as World War I, Ho Chi Minh tried to establish contacts with U.S. officials to aid the fight for independence from the French. Between 1944 and 1945 he wrote at least seven letters to President Truman and the State Department requesting help, but rather than help the Vietnamese free themselves from the French, the U.S. helped the French try to re-conquer the Vietnamese.

Toward the end of the French re-colonization effort the U.S. paid for nearly all of it, but despite U.S. aid, the French failed, so the U.S. took over.

As President Bush says today, free people are an inspiration to the oppressed everywhere. When one group frees itself, others will do the same. The powerful must prevent that first revolution, at whatever cost, to maintain control and prevent the future revolutions that would surely follow.

Sometimes communism turned up in strange places, like democratic elections. The two halves of Vietnam were supposed to unite after elections in 1956, but President Eisenhower blocked them because, as he wrote in his biography, they would have turned out much as they would have a couple years before, when “possibly 80 percent of the population would have voted for the Communist Ho Chi Minh.”

As the new power in the world, the U.S. was responsible for maintaining order and the status quo. U.S. candidates in the South had no political support so they had to use other means, like terror, and chemical and biological warfare, to remain in power.

In a letter to Kennedy adviser McGeorge Bundy, Edward Murrow, another adviser, stressed the need to use “food as a weapon of war.”

He wrote: “If we will win in Vietnam with defoliants, but lose without them, then we must use them. If we will probably win with defoliants and probably lose without them, then also we must use them. If we might win with defoliants, and might win without them, then we had better consider the implications,” as the U.S. could not “persuade the world – particularly that large part of it which does not get enough to eat – that defoliation ‘is good for you'”.

His concern was not the immorality of waging chemical warfare, but that doing so would make the U.S. look bad.

That was in 1962. Over the decade the U.S. spread more than 100,000 tons of toxic chemicals in South Vietnam.

The effects were predictable, and predicted – cancers, miscarriages, deformities – but they were of little consequence as they helped achieve the war aims.

The U.S. killed at least three million Vietnamese, mostly civilians, but prevented the communists from gaining electoral legitimacy. The Vietnamese did free themselves from the U.S., but Vietnam became a mutant form of what it could have been. U.S. goals were achieved.

Unless the U.S. is victorious even in defeat, Vietnam was no loss. Westmoreland was right. The cancer stayed right where it was.